THE BLOG
02/01/2013 03:12 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2013

The Dotted Line

Let's be clear. Nobody wakes up with your best interests at heart. Not your parents, not your lover, not your colleagues -- not totally. No one wants to sabotage you, probably. But only one person opens his pillow-drunk eyes with a whole-hearted devotion toward protecting your ass: You. Welcome to the jungle.

I somehow found myself at a table surrounded by four people who, with me, co-own some intellectual property. Joining us were three people from academia who'd applied for a grant to develop our intellectual property beyond its prototype. To grab the gist of the situation, picture this: You designed a car with four of your buddies, went to a junkyard and built a skeleton of the vehicle. Suddenly three of your former mentors arrived and said, "We like where this skeleton's going. It could be the future of cars, actually. So we've gotten tens of thousands of dollars in grant money to flesh your skeleton into a full car. There are some stipulations, though, mumble mumble mumble." So this is where we stand today: At the corner of "What now?" Avenue and "Whose intellectual property is this if we use the grant?" Street -- just a block down from "Stipulations? What stipulations?" Boulevard.

Typically legal decisions hit you in the gut while you're looking at the sky, and this one's pretty typical. So the five of us young people are scrambling. We feel the weight of an arbitrary time constraint and of future profits that are so big but simultaneously so tenuous that all we can do is salivate at the thought and then chastise ourselves for doing so.

People my age, in their twenties, are constantly discovering the many manifestations of the lasting effect that today's dotted line, signed, can have on tomorrow's well-being, unwritten. We're aware that during negotiations, those across the table from us know something we don't. We try not to let a pride born of identifying one pitfall blind us from seeing a half-dozen others, and often we fail. Sometimes one of us writes a blog post in hopes we can one-if-by-land, two-if-by-sea a message to our peers to alert them of a dotted-line trap. Recent favorites of mine from friends? A landlord who expected twenty-somethings to forget about security deposits they put down at the beginning of leases. A dentist who didn't think a young adult would get a second opinion about a procedure. A car dealer who sank a credit score -- that had existed only a year, but was superb -- by applying for more than a half-dozen loans on the young car-buyer's behalf. Professionals in every industry seem to be stripping the pennies off people my age, and then they take our watches too. As if we'll never catch on.

This negotiation with educators, whose business lies in sculpting the next generation, makes me wonder if part of academia isn't falling to the masses of those who prey on the young. It's capitalism. It's competition. It's survival of the fittest. It's fine print. It's legal.

But it's sick. I want to think that dotted lines given to young adults aren't hiding traps to benefit older ones, especially educators, doctors and other well-educated people.

It's just that then I wake up.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.